PLAINFIELD, Ind. (AP) — His pilot’s license fresh in his hands, an Indiana teenager set out in June for the adventure of a lifetime: an around-the-world flight with his father designed to break a record and raise money to build schools in his father’s native Pakistan.
Just days before the father and son were to return home to Indiana, the trip turned tragic when their plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean shortly after leaving Pago Pago in American Samoa on Tuesday night. The body of 17-year-old Haris Suleman was recovered, but crews were still searching Wednesday for the father, Babar Suleman.
The Sulemans left the state on June 19 in hopes of setting the record for the fastest circumnavigation around the world in a single-engine airplane with the youngest pilot in command to do so.
For more than a month, the trip was everything they’d hoped for, with visits to the pyramids and rides on camels in Egypt, a family reunion in Pakistan and much more. Even food poisoning and delays that meant they wouldn’t complete the trip in their intended 30 days couldn’t dilute the teen’s enthusiasm as he saw Europe, Africa, Asia and the South Pacific.
“There is so much beauty and culture in each country that I couldn’t possibly witness all that I want to,” Haris Suleman told The Indianapolis Star in an email recently.
The teen’s 26-year-old sister, Hiba Suleman, said her father and brother had undergone training to learn how to handle an ocean landing and wore protective immersion suits when flying over water. She said it was unusual for them to take off at night but didn’t know whether that contributed to the crash.
“With a trip like this, there’s always a risk, and they did prepare for that risk,” she said at a news conference Wednesday in Plainfield, the central Indiana town where the family lives.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has an inspector in American Samoa who will be looking into this accident. National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Terry Williams said the agency will work with local authorities on the investigation, but he couldn’t confirm if NTSB will send its own investigator to the territory.
U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer Melissa McKenzie said witnesses reported seeing the single-engine Hawker Beechcraft go down about a mile from shore shortly after taking off from Pago Pago International Airport. The plane was headed to Honolulu.
“It’s a tragedy of immense proportions,” family friend Azher Khan told reporters.
Haris, who had just completed his junior year of high school, had been flying with his father — an engineer — since age 8 and in June acquired his pilot’s license and instrument rating, which authorized him to fly an aircraft over oceans.
The trip was also raising money for the Citizens Foundation, a nonprofit that builds schools in Pakistan. The organization has built 1,000 schools for boys and girls in Pakistan, and Khan said the father-son team had raised about $500,000, nearly enough to build three more.
Hiba Suleman said the cause was dear to her father, who left Pakistan in 1983.
She said the trip had been a dream of her father’s for years and that her brother was excited to join in and pursue the record. He planned to be the pilot in command except in an emergency.
Haris acknowledged the risks.
“Why does any explorer undertake the necessary risks in order to accomplish their dream?” he wrote in a July 15 blog for the Huffington Post. “Because that person has a drive, they have a focus, and they have a need to explore that dream.”
Hiba Suleman, who held back tears during Wednesday’s news conference, said she last spoke to her brother, who wanted to follow their father into the engineering profession, on Tuesday. She said that during that conversation Haris told her he loved Pago Pago’s tropical setting and also asked her if she had their father’s credit card number
“He wanted to book the hotel in Hawaii because he apparently wasn’t very happy with my dad’s previous choices,” she said with a laugh.
Hiba Suleman said her older brother was trying to fly to American Samoa to bring back her Haris’ remains. She also said the family is hopeful that Babar Suleman might be alive.
American Samoa Lt. Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga, the acting governor, said the territory’s priority is to search for and rescue Babar Suleman.